Times have changed along the U.S.-Mexico border. In just a few short years, Mexican drug cartels have taken over the people-smuggling business. Although U.S. border walls and fences have proliferated, they have done nothing to prevent the cartels from moving drugs, human beings, guns, and money back and forth across the border. The combination of heightened U.S. border enforcement and cartel violence has made crossing the border increasingly dangerous. Yet large numbers of unauthorized immigrants who were previously deported from  the United States continue to risk their lives by crossing the border in order to reunite with their U.S. families. The Obama Administration’s current enforcement policies treat these family-bound migrants like hardened criminals, while failing to address the real threat to securitythe cartels.

This is the picture that emerges from a recent, comprehensive New York Times story about the U.S.-Mexico border. The story highlights a number of facts that are crucial for understanding U.S. border enforcement and immigration policy today:

  • Drug cartels are the threat—not the migrants they smuggle.  Unauthorized immigrants are often portrayed by anti-immigrant activists as a threat to border security, despite the fact that they are less likely to commit serious crimes or end up behind bars than the native-born. However, the true threats to security are the drug cartels that smuggle unauthorized immigrants into the United States.  These are large-scale, exceedingly violent, criminal syndicates that also smuggle drugs into the country, and guns and money into Mexico. As former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard persuasively argues, it is the sprawling collection of cartel sub-contractors that makes illicit entry into the United States possible in this era of border walls and fences. Therefore, “until the cartels are eliminated, the border cannot be considered secure. Period.”
  • More unauthorized immigrants are deportees trying to rejoin their U.S. families. The stereotype of the unauthorized immigrant is of the young, single male who journeys northward for a low-wage job picking crops or washing dishes. However, that sort of migration across the border has come to a virtual standstill. There are few jobs to be had in the United States, a growing number of jobs to be had in Mexico, and a dwindling number of potential migrants who want to brave the often-deadly gauntlet of cartel smuggling operations and U.S. border enforcement. As a result, a growing number of unauthorized immigrants are people who have lived in the United States for several years, been deported, and are trying to rejoin their U.S. families.
  • U.S. immigration policy treats these family migrants the same as gang members and hardened felons. In August, the Obama Administration announced that it would target its immigration enforcement efforts on dangerous criminals rather than unauthorized workers without criminal records. Nevertheless, standing policy still treats deportees who cross the border again in order to rejoin their families the same as dangerous criminals. This policy defies common sense and runs counter to the spirit of the guidelines released in August.

U.S. border enforcement policies don’t make much sense. In an era of transnational criminal cartels that deal in drugs, guns, money, and human cargo, the U.S. government is more likely to prosecute the human cargo than it is to attack the transnational cartels. At a time when federal authorities are revisiting guidelines as to who should be deported and who should not, deportees trying to reunify with U.S. families are lumped together with individuals who pose a threat to national security. A system this irrational is in dire need of a comprehensive overhaul.

Photo by Braden Gunem.

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